As a lesbian living in today's society freedom of speech is a tool I hold dear to my heart. In the UK the LGBTQ community, by law, has the luxury of freedom of speech; some of us are able to embrace it and use it for all its worth. Some of us are not so able to.
Let's take work, for example: some of the most rewarding work I've ever done was with women and children escaping domestic violence. It was throughout my time working for a women's voluntary organisation that I witnessed service users and staff alike develop the ability to use their voice. The silence that is forced upon women and children surviving domestic violence can be hard to reverse. One of the most important aspects of support for many survivors was often the chance to talk freely. However the benefits were not only for the service users; I developed my ability to speak too. I had always had strong feminist values but it wasn't until my time within said role that I acknowledged I was a feminist, I was proud to be a feminist and I was not going to dampen my views to accommodate anybody else's.
By accommodate I think you will know what I mean; when we decide to ignore the constant flurry of sexism and oppression that we all have to contend with on a daily basis, not only as a woman but as a lesbian too. The lesbian with the strong views. I am not embarrassed, ashamed or too socially awkward about being that lesbian any more.
It is not an easy accomplishment, within the gender biased constraints of many working environments, to be able to stand up for what you believe in. And I am not just talking overt discrimination, the subtle stuff is just as bad. Take the language we ignore that happens every day; the female colleague that is asked to make the tea for the male manager, the inappropriate, and quite frankly dated, questions from colleagues about your coming out process, the homophobic joke that is casually shared over lunch - the list goes on.
Gender discrimination in the workplace does not end there. On International Women's Day this year - yes this year - it was reported that women get paid less than men across every government department according to Whitehall's own figures. Graeme Demianyk's article for The Huffington Post UK shared some figures that make for excruciating reading; 'the difference in pay was as high as £9.87 an hour in the Attorney General's Office' - so if the UK are leading from the top we are in serious trouble.
I have been fairly lucky at work. I have stumbled through my career not experiencing too much discrimination and forgetting, almost, that it hasn't been that long since there were no employment protections in place for LGBTQ individuals. In the workplace, in 2013, Stonewall reported that 1 in 5 lesbian, gay and bisexual employees have experienced verbal bullying due to their sexual orientation in the last 5 years. Those perpetrators have a voice. They have a voice that inflicts negativity and trauma within people's lives. All I am advocating for are voices that promote equality - and that tackle discrimination - note; no-one gets hurt. We need to be speaking up about this stuff, as much, and in as many ways as we can.
So this week I have been thinking a lot about speech and how I responsibly use it. Not just at work but in all areas of my life. Well I try, always, to refer to my wife as my wife because it is important to me that people do not assume that my wife is my husband. On occasion the word partner slips out of my mouth instead. Perhaps these are times where I am really a little bit weary, perhaps I'm feeling less accomplished and fearlessly confident on that day, perhaps I am less up for the fight. Maybe our dogs decided to wake me up barking or our senile, yet surprisingly spritely, 22 year old cat decided he wanted feeding at 3am - either way maybe I wasn't in the mood for the old 'she not he' conversation.
I recently booked my wife's car into a local garage for an MOT and must have used the 'p' word rather than confidently outing myself. The man I spoke to asked me to 'make sure he checks the tyres' prior to my appointment. Now there are many things wrong with that. Personally I feel I should have corrected the she/he issue immediately but my brain had already started to debate whether, to this man, it is incomprehensible that the woman he was talking to could check the tyres. I may be being unfair. He could have been pertaining towards the fact that the car was my partner's (there I go again!) and not mine - who knows. All I know is that my voice chickened out. I let the moment pass and as soon as the phone call ended I felt a sense of shame that I wasn't brave enough to point out his misdemeanours.
What is more shameful, however, is that gay women, in 2016, have to have the she/he conversation at all. But we do. We all encounter these situations and do or don't challenge them, for many different reasons. I feel strongly that people should only challenge others when they want to - it's not our responsibility to challenge or educate others, it's a choice we make if we want to. In some circumstances it would not feel safe to. I am sure this is commonplace for many LGBTQ individuals.
So, in my mixed up thinking about my ability to use my own voice I am not sure what I am asking you to consider first and foremost. Sometimes the task of doing our bit to tackle the inequality that surrounds us feels overwhelming. But - what I think is probably most achievable for us all - where it feels safe to do so, is not staying silent because it feels too uncomfortable to speak. Uncomfortable brings about thought and thought brings about change. It is not okay for you to overhear 'it is so gay' within office gossip. It is not okay for your manager to ask you to water the plants but never ask your male counterpart to do so. It is not okay for the men in the office to debate the physical attributes of the new female staff member. And, within the thick fog of anger, frustration and sadness that we feel in hearing this sort of language, we must try to remember - it is okay for us to say so.